I remember first hearing about San Fermín, not quite getting it. I remember doing some research, trying to figure out what the hell I was getting myself into, but yet not quite getting it. I remember going there, not quite getting it. I remember being there, not getting it at all. And I remember heading home afterwards, still not getting it.
I did however manage to find out a couple of things, and I learned it the hard way. Here’s some advice I wish someone would have given me before my first trip to San Fermín.
1. Learn Spanish.
I was lucky enough to be traveling with a Mexican friend who patiently took the role of an interpreter, but there were still plenty of situations where I wished I spoke (or at least understood) Spanish. I don’t know if the locals really don’t speak any English or if they just don’t want to, but in any case you can’t really talk to anyone if you don’t speak Spanish. And I do think that talking to random people on the street definitely is part of the San Fermín experience. Plus, as always: Knowing the language of the country you’re in helps you not to feel like a stupid tourist.
2. Wear white.
Speaking of feeling like a stupid tourist: During the fiesta, the whole city wears white. Yes, THE WHOLE CITY. So if you don’t, you will definitely stick out. And feel completely out of place. And like a stupid tourist. Who is completely out of place. So be prepared and at least put on a white shirt.
3. Book in advance.
…or you might end up staying (or not staying) on a camp site in another town with exactly one bus connection to Pamplona per day (at 5.45 in the morning, by the way) and another one (at 9, also a.m.) back. So if you don’t necessarily want to sleep at the bus stop or in the park (which is completely fine, though), make sure to make reservations way beforehand. The fiesta is quite popular and therefore the hostels and campsites closeby are fully booked quite some time ahead.
4. Pay attention to your belongings.
There’s an insane amount of people and a comparable amount of alcohol pretty much everywhere at any given time, so it can quite easily happen to get mugged if you don’t pay attention. I’d recommend to only carry some cash and leave everything else safely stowed in a locker (for example at the beloved bus station). Even though trying to fill out forms at a Spanish police station after 2 days of craziness and basically no sleep also is quite the experience. Your call.
5. Eat properly.
As already mentioned before, there’s incredible amounts of alcohol anywhere at any given time. And no matter what you might tell yourself beforehand: You will undoubtably end up drinking a considerable share of that seemingly infinite supply. That combined with randomly running and jumping around in Pamplona’s streets for hours (or days) definitely can be exhausting. So eating at least one proper meal per day and drinking enough water is key. Seriously. Of course there’s sandwiches and snacks sold on every street corner, but in order not to feel like a total piece of shit, a full and warm meal every now and then is essential.
6. Dive in.
I can’t help but quote Ernest Hemingway, who San Fermín owes its world-wide fame to, on this. He just sums it up perfectly:
“It kept up day and night for seven days. The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta.”
(from: Ernest Hemingway – Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises)
I somehow think of San Fermín as Europe’s Las Vegas. Not that in its very essence, these two are anything alike, but they both do have a certain, incomparable absurdity to themselves that I haven’t experienced anywhere else in the world so far. Looking back, they both don’t make any sense whatsoever, but I know that during the time of being there, in their own and confusing way, they somehow did. What happens there, stays there, so you might as well just dive in and enjoy.
Even though I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around what did actually happen there.
All I know is that our camp site was in the middle of nowhere with basically no public transport whatsoever. But it didn’t matter. We spent two nights on the floor of a bus station. But it didn’t matter. Both our wallets and my phone got stolen. But it all seemed so unreal that somehow it also didn’t matter. We were so caught up in all that madness that incessantly surrounded us that nothing really mattered. Nothing but the fiesta. The fiesta and the sun, that at some point always also rises.
WTF is San Fermín?!
Basically, it’s an annual week of pure madness spread over the whole city of Pamplona (Navarre, Spain). It’s a festival including concerts, all kinds of shows and random parades. It’s streets packed with people drinking, dancing, enjoying. So far, so good. But then there’s also The Running of the Bulls, which is pretty much what the name suggests: bulls running through the city – and people racing with them. And then of course there’s the Bullfights. But as I said: I still don’t get it. So if you want to find out more, I’d recommend to take a look here.